One Ugly Truth We've Learned About Every AP Top 25 Team

Ryan CuriFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2012

One Ugly Truth We've Learned About Every AP Top 25 Team

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    While the 25 teams that comprise the AP Poll have certainly showed their strengths during this non-conference season, many of their weaknesses have yet to be exposed. At some point throughout their tumultuous league schedules, these flaws will be exposed.

    Their reactions to the rough patches they will all experience at some point will prove their worth come March Madness. The 25 teams highlighted in this slideshow have combined for only 28 combined losses, including four unscathed squads.

    The ugly truth about each particular team isn't in any way to take away from what they have accomplished within the season's first month and a half, but rather to give a glimpse of an area that could be a cause for concern at some point in the future. 

25. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Bruce Weber's Recent NCAA Tournament Track Record

    A year ago this time, Bruce Weber looked to be in a very stable situation as the head coach of Illinois. Two and a half months and a bundle of losses later, Weber was out of a job only to be hired as the main man in Manhattan shortly after.

    The Fighting Illini essentially gave up on Weber at the end of last season. Will Kansas State do the same? Most likely not. The Wildcats should have no problem finishing in the top four of the Big 12 and perhaps even higher.

    After Illinois' run to the National Championship in 2005, Weber only notched a pair of NCAA Tournament victories during his last seven years in Champaign. Like at Illinois, Weber has inherited a talented bunch at Kansas State. He's proved that he can win with another coach's players but will need a win or two in this year's March Madness to help solidify that argument.

24. Pittsburgh Panthers

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    The Panthers Are Too Deep

    The question I have posed above may sound like a silly one. Especially because of the fact that I love coaches who play deep benches and don't overuse their starters. Through 13 games, all 10 of Pitt's players average between 10.9 and 29.1 minutes.

    Whether I'm arguing if they are too deep or just lack a go-to guy, there's no real difference. Talib Zanna, Tray Woodall, and J.J. Moore are the team's double-figure scorers. Steven Adams and Trey Zeigler have also been welcome additions to a squad that was very overhyped a year ago.

    Losing Ashton Gibbs has not hurt this team one bit, and they are sharing the ball at the second-highest rate in the nation with the fourth-highest field goal percentage. During a non-conference campaign that featured only one ranked opponent (loss to Michigan), it's great to get everyone playing time, which Jamie Dixon has. What the rotation will look like and who will be the team's top scorer come conference play is yet to be seen though.

23. North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    The Wolfpack Are No Longer the Favorite to Win the ACC

    From the end of last season in April until Thanksgiving tournaments in November, North Carolina State appeared to be the favorites in the ACC for the 2012-13 season. Not Duke, not North Carolina but NC State. Two losses later and the Wolfpack are no longer the top dog.

    NC State has dropped two games in the young season: to Oklahoma State and at Michigan, both of whom are ranked. They've yet to beat a ranked opponent but have wins over UCONN and Stanford. This team also shares the ball extremely well, with five players averaging at least 11.3 points.

    Not only will the NC State team have to adjust to becoming second fiddle behind the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils, but CJ Leslie no longer appears to be the conference's top player, which now belongs to Mason Plumlee.

    How Mark Gottfried's bunch responds to a drop in the rankings will go a long way in determining if they will only match last year's Sweet Sixteen appearance or if they can further their stay in sports' best playoff system.

22. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    The Cowboys Cannot Win on the Road

    With a sample size of one game, it may be a bit premature to say that Oklahoma State is incapable of winning games in which their opponent has the dominating fan base. However, the Cowboys lone true road game resulted in a 81-71 loss to Virginia Tech.

    Despite losing their only road game, the Cowboys have won on a neutral site. They knocked off Akron, Tennessee and North Carolina State over a four-day span during Thanksgiving but have yet to have a challenging contest since their lone defeat.

    The Cowboys will get their chance at another road contest soon enough, with matchups at Kansas State, Oklahoma and Baylor early on in the Big 12 schedule. Until they pull off a road win in conference—even against a lesser opponent than them—it's hard for me to envision this team going deep in the NCAA Tournament because of youth, despite extreme athleticism. The Cowboys are back in action on New Year's Eve against Gonzaga, albeit a home game.

21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Jack Cooley Has Yet to be Challenged

    After 13 games—only one of which ended in a loss—senior Jack Cooley has had his way with the Irish's opponents. Currently averaging 15.2 points and 11.3 rebounds, it's shocking when Cooley doesn't end up with a double-double.

    On top of that, he's shooting 64 percent from the field, blocking 1.7 shots and grabbing 4.8 rebounds on the offensive end alone. Notre Dame lost to a mediocre St. Joseph's squad early on, but since then has been unblemished, although the most notable win came against Kentucky at home.

    Cooley's current averages are up 2.7 points and 2.4 rebounds from a year ago. Is that because he has improved that much or are those numbers inflated with the lack of competition? No doubt about it, Cooley will get his during conference play even against some powerful frontcourt players such as Gorgui Dieng of Louisville, Otto Porter of Georgetown, or James Southerland from Syracuse.

    Teams will start collapsing with greater urgency on Cooley in the post, and he'll have to make decisions with the ball and hope his teammates knock down the open three.

20. UNLV Runnin' Rebels

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    Anthony Bennett's NBA Stock Doesn't Necessarily Translate into Wins

    Expectations were high before this season in Vegas and for good reason. With freshman Anthony Bennett ready to roll and Pitt transfer Khem Birch eligible at fall semester's end, the Runnin' Rebels had added huge pieces to a puzzle that already contained Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall.

    Bennett has been as good as advertised through the Rebels' initial 12 games, in which they were only defeated by Oregon. Bennett's 19.5 point and 8.5 rebound averages are significantly better than fellow highly-touted freshman Nerlens Noel's at Kentucky. 

    Bennett's 6'8", 240-pound frame oozing of athleticism has NBA scouts drooling at the chance of snagging him in the 2013 lottery. UNLV loves to run-and-gun, a perfect system for an NBA prospect to play in.

    But when UNLV enters play in the underrated Mountain West Conference, will it turn into the Anthony Bennett show? If it does, the Rebels could easily find themselves finishing third or fourth in the league. If this team plays to their potential though, they could become a Final Four dark horse.

19. Michigan State Spartans

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    Losing Draymond Green Is as Big of a Deal as Expected

    Losing the Conference's Player of the Year from the previous season is never easy. Even if you bring back four starters and a top-of-the-line freshman, as is the case for Michigan State. Not only are Green's triple-double performances missed but even more so is his leadership.

    Freshman Gary Harris is a pure scorer for the Spartans, while Branden Dawson's quick recovery from ACL surgery was a pleasant surprise. Keith Appling is starting to look like a natural point guard, while big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne coupled together combine to be more effective than any one big man can.

    Green, a three-year captain, was a personal favorite of Tom Izzo, something that lone senior Nix is not.

    Michigan State always seems to play their best basketball when they have that senior leadership, as was the case with Green and Mateen Cleaves in their 2000 National Championship season. This season is starting to look like two years ago, when the team's seniors were Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas. MSU could find themselves in an unfamiliar place in this year's deep Big Ten if they slide to somewhere in the middle of the league.

18. Butler Bulldogs

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    The Atlantic 10 Won't Be the Cakewalk That the Horizon League Was

    Butler made the move from the Horizon League to the A-10 prior to the season, but with recent news surrounding the Catholic Big East schools, who knows how long their stay will last? Regardless, the Bulldogs will be challenged this year in arguably the best non-BCS conference.

    Xavier, Temple and St. Louis bring back talented lineups that got them into the NCAA Tournament last season. The conference also added Shaka Smart's VCU, setting up a great coaching duel between Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens. Stevens proved his coaching worth by getting the Bulldogs to back-to-back National Championship game appearances.

    They've already knocked off then top-ranked Indiana this season but should expect more losses this year in conference play than they're used to. After all, every team will be giving the big bad newcomer their best shot. Still, Rotnei Clarke, Andrew Smith, Khyle Marshall and company should be up for this new challenge.

17. San Diego State Aztecs

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    When Jamaal Franklin Struggles, the Aztecs Lose

    No team plays well when their star player struggles. Unfortunate;y for San Diego State, their best player, Jamaal Franklin, has played his two worst games in the team's toughest challenges thus far, and both ended in defeats for the Aztecs.

    In the season opener against Syracuse, Franklin shot just 3-for-12 while committing seven turnovers in a 13-point loss to Syracuse. On Christmas, Franklin struggled again, shooting just 2-for-6 while being limited by foul trouble in a single point loss to Arizona.

    San Diego State has weapons other than Franklin, namely Chase Tapley who played brilliantly in Hawaii, but without Franklin's 17.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per night, this team could struggle in the suddenly star powered Mountain West Conference. Big men Brandon Davies of BYU, Colton Iverson of Colorado State and Anthony Bennett from UNLV could all find themselves matched up against the lanky Franklin at some point in the future.

16. Creighton Bluejays

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    The Bluejays Won't Be Good Enough Defensively

    When college basketball fans hear Creighton, their thoughts are immediately directed to the coach's son, Doug McDermott. The junior who was not even recruited by his own father when he previously coached at Iowa State is an offensive machine, who can score in a multitude of ways and has the sweetest touch in the game.

    The Bluejays were knocked out by North Carolina in last year's NCAA Tournament, a perfect matchup of high-powered offenses and unproven defenses. So far in 2012-13, Creighton has only lost to Boise State. Just prior to their defeat however, the Jays knocked off Wisconsin and Arizona State but have up 74 and 73 points respectively to two very inept offenses.

    Since then the Blujays have not been challenged, but that will change soon.

    This year's Missouri Valley is the best the league has had in quite some time. The inside-outside duo of Jackie Carmichael and Tyler Brown at Illinois State nearly pulled an epic upset at Louisville, while Wichita State and Indiana State have been impressive in early season tournaments, capped by the Sycamore's game-winning shot from Jake Odum against Miami. Creighton will lose a few games in the MVC this year no matter what, but if they don't improve on defense, they will not win the conference.

15. Georgetown Hoyas

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    The Hoyas Won't Be Good Enough Offensively

    Unlike Creighton, Georgetown has no problem defending, though they may not have enough offensive fire power to survive the Big East's gauntlet. The most glaring instance of this came in the Hoyas 37-36 win over Tennessee a few week back.

    The Hoyas were impressive in an overtime loss against the high-powered but defensively challenged Indiana, which occurred when IU was ranked atop the nation's standings. They've also gotten scares from the likes of Duquesne, Liberty and Towson, each of which were single digit victories.

    Otto Porter's 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a night help make him a promising NBA Draft prospect. The Hoyas ranked 202nd in scoring and 230th in rebounding among the nation's teams, so Porter's numbers may actually be deflated as part of the team's slow-paced Princeton Offense. John Thompson's squad will need to eclipse their 66-point average if they want to get past the likes of Louisville and Syracuse atop the Big East.

14. Florida Gators

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    Kenny Boynton's Shooting

    To say that the start to Kenny Boynton's senior year has been disappointing would be an understatement. He is having a career-low season in regards to points, shooting percentage and three-point percentage but has improved rebounding.

    If anything, his current 36 percent shooting, including 28 percent from deep, has shown NBA scouts that Boynton would be suited better as a point guard than shooting guard should he reach the next level in his basketball career.

    Florida has plenty of weapons aside from Boynton.

    Mike Rosario has rebounded from a tough junior year in which he came off the bench in a crowded backcourt. Patric Young is a man among boys, while senior Erick Murphy can score both inside and outside. Boynton doesn't have to worry much about point guard duties now as Scottie Wilbekin is back from suspension, but he does need to worry about shooting his team out of games. In the Gator's last five games.

    Boynton has shot 13-for-51, including 4-for-32 from behind the arc. That won't cut it for a team that has lost heartbreaking Elite Eight matchups the past two seasons.

13. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Weak Guard Play

    In Gonzaga's home loss to Illinois in early December, Brandon Paul lit up the Bulldogs for 35 points, by far his best game since his 43-point output last January against Ohio State. The Illini's backcourt dictated the tempo of that game, even in a tough road environment at Gonzaga and despite the Zags having the clear size and skill advantage in the front court.

    Four of Gonzaga's top six scorers play the power forward/center positions, while sophomores Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos combine for just over 20 points per night. Bigs Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower score 47.3 points per game between the quadrant of players.

    David Stockton also plays in the Gonzaga backcourt at point guard, allowing Pangos to slide to the off-guard position. Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi also do but are more or less role players. Illinois' backcourt exposed that of Gonzaga's, and while they might not come back to bite them in conference play, it could very well prevent them from reaching the Final Four appearance that they need to get over the hump.

12. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Weak Frontcourt Play

    As discussed in the previous slide, Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul can score in bunches. Add in sharpshooter DJ Richardson, floor general Tracy Abrams and spark plug Joseph Bertrand, and the Illini essentially have four interchangeable guard players.

    What John Groce's squad lacks is an inside presence that they can throw the ball up to around the rim and get two points, as they could a year ago with seven-footer Meyers Leonard. Nnanna Egwu, who is defensively-minded and raw on offense,starts at center.

    Tyler Griffey is the starting power forward, and while he has no problem shooting along the perimeter, he lacks the bulk to play inside against top Big Ten power forwards.

    Sam McLaurin was a welcome addition from Coastal Carolina but hasn't found his niche yet, while Myke Henry is more of a small forward than power forward anyways. The Illini were brutally beat on the boards against Missouri last Saturday, something they can't let happen in the Big Ten if they want to avoid another late season meltdown this year.

11. Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Trevor Mbakwe's Role Hanging in the Balance

    After being granted a sixth season by the NCAA following a season-ending injury a year ago, Trevor Mbakwe and this year's Golden Gophers were supposed to be Tubby Smith's best bunch since coming to Minneapolis.

    So far they have been, though Rodney Williams Jr. has been the anchor behind their success, not Mbakwe. Mbakwe was a walking double-double two seasons ago, but because of injury and an offseason DUI, he found himself coming off the bench behind Elliott Eliason to start the year.

    Mbakwe recently won back his starting role, though he will play center as Williams is slotted at power forward. Mbakwe has only notched a pair of double-doubles for the 12-1 Golden Gophers and has been surpassed by Williams in scoring, assists, blocks and steals.

    Mbakwe has only played over half the game in four of the team's 13 games as well. Though it appears that Mbakwe may finally see the minutes he deserves, Smith must make an executive decision on what should be expected of Mbakwe. If they can get Mbakwe engaged, without running the entire offense through him, Minnesota can be a scary good team.

10. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Aaron Craft's Inability to Become a Needed Scorer

    Last year, Ohio State had the three-headed scoring monster of Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Deshaun Thomas. Before that they had David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Evan Turner. They still have Thomas, but after him, who else can score?

    So far, Aaron Craft is not the answer. Lenzelle Smith Jr. has upped his scoring from a year ago, while LaQuinton Ross has contributed as well. However, 8.9 points and 4.6 assists isn't going to cut it from Craft, one of the nation's top defenders.

    Craft's numbers are nearly identical from a year ago, when he was the team's fourth scoring option, though his shooting percentage has dropped big time as he feels more pressure to shoot now. Over the past six contests, Craft has averaged only five points per game and has not reached double-figure scoring. This shooting slump started after a 3-for-15 shooting performance at Duke and hasn't improved much since.

    Not only will Craft need to consistently score double figures of his own, he will also need to put Thomas in better scoring positions. If he can do this, back-to-back Final Four appearances aren't out of the question, though it doesn't appear likely at this point either.

9. Syracuse Orange

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    Big Time Scorers Can Expose the Syracuse Zone

    When Syracuse fell to Temple at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, we learned a few things about the Orange. The most obvious thing to me was that Syracuse lost to one of the few formidable teams on their non-conference slate, in which they refuse to play outside the state of New York.

    How they lost to Temple is the other cause for concern. Khalif Wyatt was able to get into the teeth of 'Cuse's famous 2-3 Zone, and he dropped 33 points in 33 minutes, over twice his season scoring average. Most alarming is the fact that Wyatt got to the free throw line 15 times, of which he knocked down every attempt.

    Now nothing against Wyatt, but top-tier Big East teams will have one if not two players of his caliber. Even lowly Providence has a bevy of offensive weapons that aren't afraid to launch it from deep, as well as drive to the hoop. Whoever may be playing the middle of their zone needs to contest that slasher's shot and not allow opposing players to get to the charity stripe at will, as Wyatt did.

8. Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Sean Kilpatrick Getting Too Shot-Happy

    In all 12 of Cincinnati's games this season, Sean Kilpatrick has scored in double figures. UC has also been victorious in all those contests. Kilpatrick was a part of the ugliness in the Bearcats 60-45 win over hated rival Xavier, though the ugliness did not reach another brawl this time around.

    Instead it took Kilpatrick 27 shots to score his 25 points. No player should ever hoist up 27 shot attempts in a game, unless you play at Grinnell. At one point in the Xavier game, Bearcat coach Mick Cronin was shown yelling to Kilpatrick "pass the f*%#@$ ball."

    Apparently that did nothing for Kilpatrick, and he finished the game without an assist, though the team did win. Kilpatrick is averaging 19.2 points on 14.5 shot attempts as a redshirt junior. Though he shoots 47 percent from the field, his 36 percent shooting on nearly seven three-point attempts per game seems high.

    Yes, he is the team's go-to guy, but even without Yancy Gates this team has plenty of weapons. Had Xavier not been offensively incompetent against their bitter rival, Kilpatrick would have received harsh criticism for his shot attempt number. But until the Bearcats lose, which will come sooner or later, expect Kilpatrick to get his shots up with high priority.

7. Missouri Tigers

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    The Gelling of Transfer Players Will Wear Off

    When it was noted that Phil Pressey was the only player on Missouri that has played in the past two annual matchups with Illinois, I was amazed how it seemed that the Tigers had not missed a beat from last year's great team.

    The team lost four senior starters from 2011-12 as well as Michael Dixon who was recently dismissed. In come transfers Alex Oriakhi from UCONN, Jabari Brown from Oregon, Keion Bell from Pepperdine, Tony Criswell from UAB and Earnest Ross from Auburn.

    Flip Pressey and the Tigers also welcomed back star fifth-year senior Lawrence Bowers who stayed out all of last season with an injury.

    While there is no doubt in my mind that this year's Mizzou squad will advance farther than an opening round upset to Norfolk State as they did last year, I don't see the cohesiveness and experience of playing together which is necessary in order to make a deep run come March. Fred Hoiberg has tried the transfer experiment at Iowa State, and while improving the program, the Cyclones don't have a NCAA Tournament track record built yet. I don't think Frank Haith will either.

6. Kansas Jayhawks

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    Elijah Johnson Not Stepping Up

    When Thomas Robinson decided to forego his final season in Lawrence following last year's National Championship game defeat to Kentucky, I immediately expected Elijah Johnson to take some of the scoring load that would be missed in Robinson's absence.

    While Johnson has facilitated well, as evidenced by his 5.0 assist average, there's still room for him to score more. Johnson just barely exploded the double-figure scoring mark a year ago, while this year he is just under.

    Redshirt freshman Ben McLemore has actually been the team's best offensive option. Jeff Withey continues to improve his game and Travis Releford is proving he's more than just a lock down defender this season.

    Kansas needs the Johnson who scored in double figures in all of the team's Big 12 and NCAA Tournament games from last year back. If Johnson can play to the level that Tyshawn Taylor finally figured out he could play at as a senior, the Jayhawks could be back in the title. If not, the ultra talented Johnson would be personally underachieving and going against good of the team.

5. Indiana Hoosiers

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    Close Games in Big Ten Road Games

    Indiana can score the basketball. In fact they lead the nation by averaging just over 89 points per contest with a well balanced attack of post players like Cody Zeller, shooters like Jordan Hulls and slashers like Victor Oladipo.

    In Bloomington, Indiana the time is now for the Hoosiers to return to basketball's elite after a brief hiatus due to the mess Kelvin Sampson caused the program. Last year, IU finished a respectable fifth place in the B1G with an 11-7 record.

    Their lone home loss on the season was a shocker to Minnesota, meaning they only compiled a 3-6 road record in the league. No matter how well this year's team plays at home, a 3-6 road record will not cut it in regards to a Big Ten Championship, high NCAA Tournament seed and favorable route come March.

    Tom Crean was brutally out-coached in IU's loss to Butler and Brad Stevens, and the Big Ten is full of great coaches. Crean has the recruiting down pat, but if they do not improve in late game situations, especially defensively, teams like Nebraska may be storming the floor on the Hoosiers again this winter.

4. Louisville Cardinals

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    Gorgui Dieng's Production Post Injury

    When a player returns from injury, you always hope that player is fully healed as to not risk re-injuring themselves and causing an even longer setback. For Rick Pitino, I can understand wanting the Cardinals near seven foot tall center back to cause havoc around the rim on both ends of the court.

    Gorgui Dieng broke his wrist last month against Missouri but will be back this weekend in time to face Kentucky prior to the Big East season commencing. Dieng's injury occurred while taking a charge but hopefully will not deter the aggressively defensive nature that Dieng possesses.

    Dieng is averaging 8.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots and has been missed by Louisville, despite going undefeated in his absence. If Dieng is in full strength in March, when things really matter, the Cardinals could make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament final weekend. If he doesn't get back to his old ways though, Louisville's size is no longer an advantage.

3. Arizona Wildcats

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    Close-Win Luck Must End at Some Point

    When Mark Lyons decided to leave Xavier to play for the man who recruited him out of high school, Sean Miller, Arizona was instantly a better squad. So far as a Wildcat, Lyons has saved 'Zona twice and kept them unbeaten.

    First, Lyons hit a running bank shot to cap off a late minute comeback against Florida. More recently on Christmas, Lyons knocked down two free throws late to put the Wildcats ahead of San Diego State by one before stopping the Aztecs on the other end to seal the win.

    The fact that the PAC-12 is not as improved as anticipated may hurt Arizona. Eventually, the close-win luck will run out, even to opponents who are inferior to Florida and San Diego State, which happens to be the entire rest of the conference. Lyons, the team's leading scorer, has more NCAA Tournament experience than the rest of the squad, but continuing to ride him in late game situations will eventually be caught on by opposing teams.

2. Michigan Wolverines

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    Inexperience Come March Madness

    In the 2011 version of March Madness, Michigan blew out Tennessee before falling just short to the defending champion Duke. In 2012, the Big Ten Co-Champions were knocked down by John Groce's Ohio squad.

    With a starting lineup of two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen, as well as plenty of youngsters off the bench, no one on this Michigan team has seen what it takes to make a push in March. I have no doubt Michigan will be a team to beat all year long. But will this young team freeze up on the national stage in a one-and-done knockout round?

    Point guard Trey Burke plays beyond his years, and this John Beilein coached squad is much less reliant on their three-pointers dropping to win games. Last year John Calipari and Kentucky proved that a team full of freshmen and sophomores could win it all. While slightly older, can Michigan be this year's young bunch that takes home the crown? Only the next three months of the season will tell.

1. Duke Blue Devils

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    Lack of Depth

    No player in the nation is better than Mason Plumlee right now. Seth Curry is shooting the ball like his father and brother. Ryan Kelley is playing his usual fundamental game. Rasheed Sulaimon is turning into a stud freshman, and Quinn Cook is becoming an elite point guard.

    So what, you ask, is top-ranked Duke's flaw? Their bench. All five Duke starters average in double figures for scoring, but no one off the bench scores more than 3.5 points per night.

    Tyler Thornton plays 22 minutes on average but no other non-starter plays over a quarter of the game.

    On paper, the Blue Devils may have the most talented and well-rounded squad in the nation. But if Mason Plumlee gets in foul trouble, Seth Curry goes cold or someone gets injured, who will Coach K turn to from his bench to provide a lift to the team? Every championship team's players know their roles. Can someone become a spark plug, defensive stopper or true role player between Josh Hairston, Amile Jefferson, and Alex Murphy? At this point the answer is no.